King shows us that brotherhood starts with our neighbors—and neighborhoods
On January 1, 1957, two weeks before his twenty-eighth birthday, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave an electrifying speech, lively and portentous. The Montgomery Bus Boycott had ended on December 20, after 382 days. In the course of that year King, hitherto a fledgling pastor and scholar, had emerged as a civic leader marked by an unusual confluence of courage, intellect, and hope. The previous January his house had been bombed. When 300 members of his community gathered to show their support—and await instructions—King told them to put their guns away. “We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us,” he dared say. “We must make them know that we love them.”
A year after the bombing King was back in the neighborhood where he grew up, speaking at an NAACP New Year’s Day rally in Atlanta, at Big Bethel AME Church. 7000 were there, including his parents and many of his elders, his mentors. The Atlanta police reported that the place was “overpacked,” with people “standing on the sidewalks and the basement of the church and the corridors and every available place.” It was the ninety-fourth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Celebration and anticipation charged the air.
King, not surprisingly, leaned toward anticipation. In this moment of political breakthrough, what we would come to see as a historic triumph, he moved his address toward a warning, sharp, simple, and stark. “This new age is an age of geographical togetherness,” he observed. “No nation can live alone now; no individual can live alone. And we must all learn to live together or we’ll all die together.”
The crowd signaled its agreement with a loud Yes, as the transcript reads. Who in 1957 did not feel the sense of enlarging threat, with million-dollar weapons overhead and millions of corpses underfoot? With new empires arising in Asia and Europe, even as new nations were breaking out across Africa?
King emphasized the technological element of the circumstance. He knew that ongoing high-tech change would require of all citizens unstinting determination. “Man through his scientific genius has been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains,” King remarked. But in doing so we had radically straitened our collective passageway: Political failure would become increasingly costly. “The world in which we live is geographically one. And now we must make it spiritually one.” (Yes, says the crowd.) “Through our scientific genius we have made of the world a neighborhood. Now through our moral and spiritual genius we must make of it a brotherhood.”
For many, King’s was not a convincing stance. These were “realists,” as they thought of themselves, distinguished by their disdain for King’s civic argot, the language of love, brotherhood, and community. They preached instead a gospel of power, realpolitik. You could mock realists in satires like Dr. Strangelove or out them in dramas like Seven Days in May or simply observe them in real-life catastrophes like the Cuban Missile Crisis. Whatever their failures and follies, the realists did not fade away. The vision shaped and symbolized by King was shaded by suspicion and contention.
But how many of even King’s sympathizers really sensed how desperate our collective plight, in this new age, had become? How many felt how necessary a vision of union, not coercion, now was?
King, as ever, was seeking for ways to move us—to get us in motion, to shake us from our complacencies. Maybe if we could grasp anew our mortality, it might help us find a way toward living out the brotherhood we in fact share and that life itself requires.
In his speech King brought John Donne’s enduring rendering of our condition before his listeners: “‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,’” he quoted. (That’s right.) “We must live together as brothers and come to see that we are all involved in a single process,” he exhorted. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Yes, says the crowd.
The reality of our outsized neighborhood came to mind this week as I watched the (now) historic footage of January 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. and live footage of January 8, 2023 in Brasília: assaults on democracy in capitals designed to represent all that democracy enshrines. Brasília, in fact, was under painstaking construction as King was making his speech. Both cities stand as instantiations of the moral and spiritual genius of which King spoke.
But it’s not just ideals that travel through neighborhoods—viruses do too. Who could watch January 8’s desolating mimicry of January 6 without sensing anew what life in a neighborhood is really like, and what it requires?
King knew the requirements. If the neighborhood is to survive, it needs to be filled with neighbors—not enemies. And the neighbors need to find their unity in everyday devotion to common beliefs: equality, decency, courtesy, justice. Once a neighborhood exists, the neighbors either enact these ideals or lose the neighborhood.
What does that look like? A wasteland. A no-man’s land. A battlefield littered with bodies—and many other desecrated things.
King saw the bodies, bodies of the past, present, and future. Standing for justice “might even mean physical death for some,” he warned, as he closed the speech. “But if physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children from a permanent life of psychological death [Yes] then nothing could be more honorable.”
That mention of death was supposed to sting, was supposed to wake us up. And on this, our thirty-seventh commemoration of Martin Luther King Day, it still does. King was right. Death would come—and with it the power to restore sight. In the past two weeks we’ve witnessed that, too.
On December 29, Pelé, the symbol of not just Brazil but the world’s most beloved game, died. As scores of newspapers testified, the world stood together in reverent attention. On January 5, millions of Americans watched tearfully as the Buffalo Bills’ Damar Hamlin fell to what seemed to be his death, only to be brought back to life by a caring and skilled company of neighbors.
If sport is a celebration of the sheer goodness of life, even its greatest avatars—those who embody our dream of eternal youth and capture flickers of glory itself—turn out to be mortal. Their fall only underscores how precious our possibilities of touching that goodness are—and how much we need one another to do so.
That’s what living in a neighborhood is about: a mutuality born of solidarity. It starts in real neighborhoods: Pelé’s Santos, where thousands of mourners passed by his body; Hamlin’s McKees Rocks, where hundreds gathered to pray for their friend. If the reality of brotherhood begins in neighborhoods like these, we may end up closer to the world King fought and died to build, rather than the world of January 6.
Eric Miller is Professor of History and the Humanities at Geneva College, where he directs the honors program. His books include Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch, and Brazilian Evangelicalism in the Twenty-First Century: An Inside and Outside Look (co-edited with Ronald J. Morgan). He is the Editor of Current.